Influenza is widespread across the US, and Walgreens is using spatial analytics company Esri to monitor flu activity.

Walgreens releases the data every Tuesday on its online, interactive map that shows where the flu is occurring across the US. The data is based on the number of anti-viral prescriptions filled at more than 8,000 Walgreens across the nation, and it comes out days ahead of the weekly report the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases every Friday.

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By having advance notice of where the flu is occurring, and tracking patterns, it gives people a chance to get a flu shot or take additional precautions to avoid exposure. “What’s really important is we understand which areas are hardest hit so that the public can vaccinate and protect themselves,” said David Attaway, Ph.D., solutions engineer for Esri. Attaway has a medical degree in medical geography and has worked directly to combat the Ebola and Zika epidemics.

Walgreens uses Esri’s ArcGIS technology to host the online map, which is known as the Walgreens Flu Index, and it allows users to easily search by state or designated market areas to see how activity in their community ranks in comparison to others across the country.

“This is an innovative way where customers can benefit from geospatial analysis. We can use predictive analytics to determine the next area that might be hardest hit,” Attaway said.

When flu cases began surging in Texas in December, the interactive Walgreens map drew 30,000 page views in a day, up from the normal 3,000 to 4,000 views a day. It’s a dynamic map that gives users a local hyperview by allowing them to enter their zip code or address to find out what is going on in their own neighborhood.

“Innovative retailers have realized the importance of providing this information to customers. They can use this digitally whether on the phone or their laptop. This provides a way to keep the public informed,” Attaway said.

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Warmer winter weather can trigger more flu cases, while below freezing temps can reduce flu activity.

“What’s interesting to look at is the environment of the areas that are hardest hit. Looking at the actual index itself, flu activity is very centralized starting in Texas and it’s moving out. What’s interesting about that is the temperatures in Texas, and looking at how different environmental aspects in these areas are causing the flu to pass from individual to individual or even the amount of weather in that particular area of interest,” Attaway said.

Jim Cohn, director of media relations for Walgreens, said the online map began as a public relations tool. Since 2009 and the H1N1 flu outbreak he said there’s been a growing demand for information and reliable data sources to help track activity.

Health and public officials have shown interest in the Walgreens Flu Index, and the company has even heard from the CDC. “There’s interest to see if this is something that can be leveraged in other areas,” Cohn said.

“People want to know what’s going on in their own backyard,” Cohn said.

According to the Walgreens Flu Index, for the week ending Jan. 13, 2018, the top designated market areas with flu activity were as follows:

  1. El Paso, Texas (Las Cruces, NM)
  2. Tyler-Longview(Lufkin and Nacogdoches), TX
  3. Corpus Christi, TX
  4. Waco-Temple-Bryan, TX
  5. Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX
  6. Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen, TX
  7. Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX
  8. Knoxville, TN
  9. Houston, TX
  10. San Antonio, TX

And among states, for the week ending Jan. 13, 2018, these had the most flu activity:

  1. Texas
  2. Iowa
  3. Tennessee
  4. Arkansas
  5. Nebraska
  6. North Carolina
  7. Idaho
  8. Wisconsin
  9. Montana
  10. Oklahoma